Sola Voluntate

Thomas claims there is a reason why God allowed for a class of saved persons and a class of reprobate ones, but no reason for why, say, Bill is in the first class. He claims that God’s choice of Bill is sola voluntate, and he compares it to a bricklayer grabbing this brick from the pile and not that one, or you scooping this meatball out of a steamer tray and not that one when you are standing at the buffet and preoccupied with something other than meatballs.

Both the example and the argument bothered me for a very long time, and when one looks at the debates about predestination it seems that many of them reduce to the belief that Thomas’s conclusion deserves to be taken as a reductio ad absurdum for his theory. The Jesuit theory of middle knowledge, for example, clearly commends itself by avoiding Thomas’s conclusion.

The key to defending the bricklayer analogy is to notice that it can’t be taken as meaning that there is some given world of persons from which God capriciously chooses. Thomas rather is working from the idea that there is no world at all prior to divine causality, and so God no more makes a capricious choice to save Bill than he makes a reasoned one as there is, prior to the divine choice, simply no Bill at all. But how in the world are we to understand the choice for a class of predestined but not a choice for Bill as one of them? One key difference is that a class is understood abstractly and Bill cannot be. Abstractions are relations and so have an indifference to existing in reality, allowing us to get true answers about their goodness even prescinding from their actual existence. No such answers are available for Bill. Said another way, speaking of God’s choices means speaking about the goods he takes as an object. If these objects are understood as classes or abstractions we can still get information about whether they are good even if they do not exist, but not if we take them as individuals. E.g. “virtue” is good if taken abstractly; Bill is not – he can’t even be taken abstractly and still be called “Bill”. No proper name as such provides us with information about whether the denominated is good or evil.

Because objects exist prior to our choosing them, we can choose even individuals because they are good, but objects do not exist like this for God qua creator and conserver of being as such. Thomas’s bricklayer example does not mean that God is indifferent since he looks out at a bunch of given options that are all equally good but because individuals are all the same due to having no existence at all prior to the divine act. God is indifferent to Bill or Larry because both are equally non-existent before a divine act, not from a capricious choice between two equal goods.

Very well, I might think to myself, Bill has no existence prior to the divine act. But why does God choose to create Bill as good (or predestined) and Larry as not? I think this is another way of putting exactly the mistake I’m describing: it treats Bill as something given to which God then adds goodness, or Larry as given and passed over by God. There is, however, no Bill at all to add goodness to, no Larry at all for God to pass over, whether by divine caprice or by an inscrutable insight. There is a Bill that exists along with all his choices, but no Bill that exists prior to his birth in some possible world to which God superads add an act of predestination. Predestination is clearly somehow prior to Bill and Larry (hence the “pre” prefix) but this priority is the priority of eternity to time, which does not take temporal beings as given but which is causally prior to them. Predestination and reprobation of concretely named and existing entities are immanent acts of God arising from within his eternity and part of the outpouring of his goodness, not determinations he makes after gazing at the concrete entities in all possible worlds and picking one such world – whether by caprice or inscrutable decision – into which he chooses to breathe the fire of existence.*


*The question why God chooses to create this world as opposed to another one can fall prey to similar confusions. God isn’t strolling the aisles of some grand cosmic market containing different possible worlds and deciding among them.

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